Arsenal made the long trip to Sunderland yesterday afternoon for the second Saturday afternoon in a row. They had managed a last gasp victory at the same venue in the Premier League last Saturday, thanks to a Thierry Henry goal. Since then Arsenal had been well beaten by AC Milan in the first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League, and Henry had departed with his loan spell over.
The team news had suggested that only Laurent Koscielny would be unavailable from the defeat to Milan, but when the team was announced Kieran Gibbs was nowhere to be seen. I'm not sure if he picked up a knock or if he needed a rest after his exertions, but it was strange that he didn't even make the match day squad. It meant Francis Coquelin played at left-back, and Johan Djourou started in the centre of defence.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also returned to the team in a wide right role with Gervinho playing on the left after his return from international duty. The players to miss out were Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott, as Arsenal went in search of a place in the quarter finals of the FA Cup. With their chances of winning any other trophy this season all but over this was their one and only chance of silverware.
Arsenal started well and looked the most likely to get the first goal until Coquelin went down with a hamstring injury just before the 10 minute mark. He had to be replaced by the only defender on the bench, and Sebastien Squillaci came on to play in central defence. It meant that Thomas Vermaelen had to revert to a left-back role yet again, and Arsenal fans got to see Squillaci play alongside Djourou.
The injury to Coquelin seemed to affect the Arsenal team, and Sunderland saw the chance to put some pressure on them. They temporarily abandoned their ultra-defensive tactics, as they saw the chance to take advantage of Arsenal's uncertainty. For the next 15 minutes Sunderland had the upper hand, but they failed to take advantage of it.
Arsenal slowly played their way back into contention, and Gervinho had a good shot well saved after Aaron Ramsey played him in. There was also a very decent penalty shout for Arsenal when Robin van Persie was felled in the penalty from a John O'Shea challenge. O'Shea got a slight touch on the ball, but I thought he made contact with RVP first and Arsenal should have had a penalty.
Arsenal were well on top at that stage, but typically that was when they conceded the first goal. Djourou and Squillaci do not look comfortable in possession, and when Djourou was closed down he lost the ball and pulled back his man to give Sunderland a free kick. When the ball was swung in to the Arsenal penalty area it was headed clear to some extent by Vermaelen, but it only reached Kieran Richardson.
His first time shot from just inside the penalty area went into the far corner of the net after a slight deflection from Squillaci. It was the lead that Sunderland wanted, and they knew that they just had to sit deep and defend, and try to hit Arsenal on the break. It was an uphill task for Arsenal, but they had managed to do the exact same thing only seven days earlier against the same opposition.
Djourou was the first player to receive a yellow card in the game for the free kick which led to the goal despite the constant fouling by almost every single Sunderland player. They had obviously been sent out to put the boot in on the Arsenal players, but they took turns to do so and the referee allowed it to happen. The Sunderland pitch was in a worse state than it was in last week, and it was only a matter of time before Arsenal picked up more injuries.
There was still only one goal between the teams at half time, and Arsenal needed a good start to the second half to get back in the game. With less than 10 minutes of the second half gone both Ramsey and Squillaci had to go off injured, and they were replaced by Rosicky and Walcott. Alex Song dropped back into defence, and Walcott moved up front, as Arsenal reverted to almost a 4-4-2 formation.
It meant Arsenal had used all of their substitutes and there were still 35 minutes to go. Despite Arsenal trying all they could to open up the Sunderland defence they rarely looked like doing so. There was another good penalty shout when RVP was dragged to the ground as he waited on a cross to come into the box. On another day Arsenal might have got a penalty, but Howard Webb is a lot more likely to hand out penalties to the current Premier League champions.
With only 15 minutes left Sunderland got their second goal, and with that Arsenal's chances of a trophy for this season ended. Chamberlain lost the ball in attack, and Sunderland broke forward at pace. Mikael Arteta fell over as hew chased back and the ball ended up hitting the post and rebounding off Chamberlain into the net.
He had chased back to make up for losing the ball, and he was very unlucky to turn the ball in for an own goal. He didn't have the best game, but he kept trying his hardest no matter how difficult it was for him. A few other Arsenal players could learn a little from the amount of effort Chamberlain put in.
Try as they might for the final 15 minutes Arsenal couldn't even get one goal back, and their chances of equaling Manchester United's haul of 11 FA Cup wins was over for another season. It leaves them in fourth in the table with 13 league games to go, and some really tough fixtures coming up.
It's no surprise that Arsenal's injury problems have returned yet again, and the return of the injured players has been met with other injuries. It's anyone's guess where Gibbs was yesterday, and whether he will be available to play against Spurs next Sunday. Hopefully Koscielny will be able to play in that game, and Arsenal can regroup over the next week before they play.
I won't knock the players too much for their performance, but the simple fact of the matter is the current squad isn't anywhere near as good as previous teams under Wenger. The opportunity to add to the squad was not taken in January, as the manager felt the returning injured players would be available very soon. What he failed to address was a squad which wasn't good enough before those players got injured, and is even worse without them.
Arsenal still have every chance to finish in the top four, but this season could also go the way of last season when Arsenal imploded after losing the Carling Cup final. If Wenger again fails to get his players to react to the challenges ahead of them he will lose the faith of even more fans. There is already growing unrest among Arsenal fans, as the club seem unwilling to invest the profits they make from transfers in new players.
When Cesc Fabregas was sold last summer Arsenal were unable to replace him, and they have no creative spark in midfield. I know Wenger did not want to sell both Cesc and Samir Nasri, but ultimately they left, and Arsenal reacted with panic buys on deadline day. I'm sure Arteta could be a vital cog in Arsenal's midfield, but he is not a direct replacement for Fabregas.
If Arsenal are to continue with their current formation they need a creative player to take the role that Cesc played. The team changed it's style of play to suit Cesc, but now that he has left they are still trying to play the same way with inferior players. It's not easy to replace a player like Cesc, but it's crazy that Arsenal didn't buy anyone to play that role.
I can only presume that Wenger thought Jack Wilshere would be able to play there, and become the player that the team needs. His injury has been a big blow, but that's where the overall strength of the squad has been found wanting. It's very difficult for fans to watch a sub-standard team when they know the club made a huge profit from transfers yet again last summer.
Those same fans were asked to pay more for their tickets last summer while they watched the club losing their best player yet again. If RVP refuses to sign a new contract this summer the club will have to sell him too, and the cycle will continue. It's not easy for fans to take after the success of the first nine years of Wenger's reign.
I know football isn't all about winning trophies and not every team can win a trophy every season, but Arsenal are not even genuinely competing for them any more. I've seen far worse Arsenal teams in the past and lived through longer trophy droughts too, but Arsenal were not one of the biggest clubs in the world then. If you look at the trophies won by the rest of the world's richest clubs there is clearly something missing at Arsenal.
If Sunderland were capable of playing a tight defensive game and hitting Arsenal on the break then why can't Arsenal do that on occasions too. They went to Milan on Wednesday night and tried to play an open game when they needed to defend with 10 men behind the ball at all times. Wenger's faith in his players is unerring, but I think it's unwarranted in far too many cases.
If the players cannot do the job they are sent out to do then others have to be found who will do so. It seems like failure is tolerated and almost rewarded at Arsenal and that simply cannot be allowed to continue. I want Wenger to remain in charge at Arsenal, but I want him to be a lot more ruthless with his players.
It's obvious that quite a few of them are just not good enough, and they need to be replaced. If he cannot see that then the axe will fall in his direction before too long. It's not something I want to see, but he has to see the failings of his players and act upon them.
Arsenal have a really tough game against an in-form Spurs team next Sunday, and a defeat could see real unrest among the fans. Wenger has a week to work with his players, and get them to perform to a level that will get a result in that game. Even a draw would do, but a defeat would be an absolute disaster in my opinion.
I really hope the team can pull together and put on a display to show the fans how much it means to them to play for Arsenal. The traveling Arsenal fans deserved better than they got against both Milan and Sunderland, but it didn't stop them making themselves heard loud and proud as always. Those traveling fans are an absolute credit to the club, and deserve to see an awful lot more from the millionaires out on the pitch for Arsenal.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from yesterday's game.
See you tomorrow.